When was the last time you saw a picture of an Egyptian President roaring with laughter in a meeting with an Israeli Prime Minister?
If a picture is worth a thousand words, this one reveals a great deal about the state of peace between Israel and Egypt.
On the sidelines of the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly in Manhattan today, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu held their first-ever publicly announced meeting. And it went better than both men had hoped.
While the two leaders speak frequently by phone, they have met in person only twice before. The first time was in the Red Sea resort city of Aqaba, Jordan in February 2016, hosted by Jordanian King Abdullah II. The second time was in Cairo in April 2016. But both of those meetings were tightly held secrets at the time. No photos were released.
By contrast, today’s meeting was announced by both sides even before it took place. Afterwards, official photographs were released. What’s more, the photos showed the two men not simply shaking hands but sincerely enjoying each other’s company.
Clearly, they have cultivated a relationship they now believe is healthy and enduring enough to make public. Senior Israeli and Egyptian officials tell me security cooperation between the two countries is unprecedentedly close. This is good.
But I believe there is something bigger going on.
Is el-Sisi going to invite Netanyahu to come on an official, formal, public state visit to Cairo? Is el-Sisi going to introduce Netanyahu to other Arab heads of state? Will he offer to host historic peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians?
Is Netanyahu about to invite el-Sisi to come to Jerusalem for an official state visit? Will he invite el-Sisi to address the Knesset, the first time an Egyptian leader would have done so since 1977 when Anwar el-Sadat stunned the world and melted the hearts of the Israeli people? Could an el-Sisi trip to Jerusalem lay the groundwork for an historic visit by the King of Saudi Arabia, or another major Arab country?
Significantly, today’s meeting came on the 39th anniversary of the Camp David peace talks. From September 5 through 17, 1978, Sadat met with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin — under the auspices of U.S. President Jimmy Carter — at the presidential retreat center near Thurmont, Maryland. Together, they hammered out the first-ever peace treaty between Israel and an Arab country.
Could another breakthrough be coming?
One thing is certain: el-Sisi believes his relationship with the Israelis can stand up against the harshest criticism by Radical Islamists, from the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, al Qaeda and ISIS, to the ayatollahs of Iran. That is a positive and significant development.
As I wrote about earlier this year when I met President el-Sisi in Washington, “What has intrigued me as I have studied Sisi is how much he admires the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, even though Sadat was assassinated for visiting Jerusalem and agreeing to the 1979 Camp David Accords.”
Indeed, “as the leader of the first Arab nation ever to sign a peace treaty with Israel, President Sisi believes Egypt offers a model that can help lead the region to peace with the Jewish state.”
Will the Saudis follow Egypt’s lead? Will the Gulf States? Will Morocco and the rest of North Africa? And ultimately, will the Palestinians?
At the same time, is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepared to follow the path of his mentor, Menachem Begin, in forging sweeping peace agreements with the broader Arab community, as well as with the Palestinians?
Only time will tell, but this was a good and encouraging day.
NOTE: Earlier today, U.S. President Donald Trump met for two hours with Netanyahu. The two men publicly affirmed that the U.S.-Israel alliance is stronger than ever. They discussed how to forge a broad regional peace, including a deal with the Palestinians, but also how to counter the real and growing threat posed by Iran. This, too, is positive. The closer the U.S. and Israel are — and the more unified they are in confronting Iran and ISIS — the easier it may be for Israel and the Arab world to find a way to make peace.
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